Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Can I Give My Cat the Flu?

Pet Column for the week of December 21, 2009

Related information:

Related site - Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
Related site - American Veterinary Medical Association

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Source - Gail Scherba, DVM, PhD
Yes! If you develop a fever and cough, it is possible that both you and your cat may end up curled up on the couch together, tissue box and all.

Dr. Gail Scherba is a professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and an authority on viral diseases. She says, "Influenza A viruses have been long standing and significant zoonotic agents." Meaning, it is a virus that has historically been transmitted between humans and animals (primarily pigs and waterfowl). Only recently did the animal component include companion animals, as is the case with the influenza A H1N1 (or sometimes called swine flu) virus.

In November, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) confirmed that an indoor-only cat in Iowa contracted the H1N1 virus days after its owners came down with the flu. Prior to that, a group of pet ferrets were diagnosed with the virus in October.

Hopefully no cat owner has a cheetah around for nose-to-nose greetings, but to prove the point that apparently H1N1 knows no species boundaries, on December 1, 2009, a California zoo confirmed that one of its large cats also tested positive for the virus.

What is notable about all these reports is that, "humans are the ones giving the virus to animals," explains Dr. Scherba, "not the other way around." To date, there are no examples of a pet giving H1N1 virus to its owner.

Fortunately for both humans and animals, the H1N1 virus has proved to be milder than seasonal flu. As long as the patient has no underlying disease or is immune-compromised, the virus tends to cause only mild respiratory disease. Still, many believe that because it so easily infects both man and animal that it is more virulent than other strains. Nevertheless, according to the World Health Organization, the cases that highlight pets being infected with H1N1, "[are] isolated events and pose no special risks to human health."

Despite the relatively mild clinical signs of H1N1 disease, there are a few easy steps pet owners can take to protect their pets, or at least minimize the severity of this or other diseases:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water (especially before and after petting any animal).
  • If you are sick, try not to "snuggle" with your pet.
  • Well-maintained animals are more resistant to disease. Be sure that your pet is up to date on vaccinations, free of parasites, and receives the appropriate nutrition.
  • Consult with your veterinarian if you think your pet may be sick, or if it is showing signs such as lethargy, decreased appetite, coughing, or difficulty breathing.

There is an H1N1 vaccine available for the general public, but
it is unlikely that a vaccine will be created for cats or dogs. "The CDC is watching this virus very carefully," notes Dr. Scherba, "and at this time there is no need for a vaccine for animals because the H1N1 virus is only causing mild disease. However, since 2004 dogs have had their own influenza A virus (H3N8), for which there is a vaccine."

For more information about flu in your pets, contact your local veterinarian.